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The Issue: Too Close for Horseshoes

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Across Delaware Bay, some conch and eel fishermen are hanging up their traps, unsure how they’ll make money. Conch and eel make up 20 percent to 50 percent of a Delaware Bay fisherman’s annual income, yet there will be far fewer caught this year due to a two-year moratorium on harvesting conch and eel’s favorite snack—and a fisherman’s favorite bait: the horseshoe crab.

An estimated 15 million horseshoe crabs live in Delaware Bay, making it the world’s horseshoe crab hot spot. Visitors to Delaware and New Jersey often go home with a horseshoe crab collectible. But one group of visitors to Delaware who are dissatisfied with the number of crabs: migrating birds. One particular species, the red knot, borders on extinction. Many experts believe the bird’s decline is due to a shortage of horseshoe crabs.

The red knot winters in the southernmost tip of South America. It summers in the Arctic. Once a year, it stops for a few weeks in Delaware Bay, mostly to feast on horseshoe crab eggs, millions of which are deposited on the beaches during the spring spawning season. Some birds triple their weight by eating horseshoe crab eggs in order to maintain strength for the rest of their journey.

Years ago, hundreds of thousands of red knots flew over the East Coast, creating one of North America’s greatest natural spectacles. Ten years ago there were thought to be more than 50,000 red knots feasting on crab eggs. Now there are only 15,000, and the number continues to dwindle. Current estimates have the red knot extinct by 2010. And a few other migrating shorebirds—such as ruddy turnstones, semipalmated sandpipers and Hudsonian godwits—appear headed in the same direction, though at a much slower rate.

So what to do? Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary John Hughes decided a moratorium on horseshoe crab harvesting was the best idea. Yet birders and watermen argue over the strategy—and there are plenty of other opinions to go around. Millions in tourism dollars from birders are at stake.

A 2000 report to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection by wildlife-tourism advocate Fermata Inc. valued shorebird-dependent tourism on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Bay at $15.9 million to $34.3 million. “I would estimate that the financial benefit on the Delaware side to be of a similar magnitude, a combined total in the range of $30 million to $70 million annually,” says Nick DiPasquale, conservation chair at the Delaware Audubon Society and former secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources.

Delaware Tourism Office director Tim Morgan isn’t concerned about losing those dollars. “Nature tourism is a growing niche all across the country, and becoming a huge industry in Delaware,” he says. “The red knots are important to us, since this is the only place in the world that this happens. But it is not Delaware’s only birding opportunity.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2001 National Survey

of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, wildlife watching is the largest economic growth sector in outdoor recreation. Across the country, nearly $40 billion was spent on wildlife watching—a figure that has increased by more than 40 percent during the past 10 years. Of the nation’s 66 million wildlife watchers, 45 million of them are bird watchers. In 2001, birders spent $32 billion in retail stores, which generated $85 billion in overall economic impact and created more than 860,000 jobs.

When there is so much money at stake, there is bound to be disagreement, and when there is disagreement, there are lawsuits. The Delaware watermen filed suit against
DNREC in late December, claiming Hughes’ moratorium goes against DNREC’s recommendations to limit the horseshoe crab harvest to 100,000 males and delay it until the birds leave Delaware.

Several organizations, including the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Delaware Shellfish Advisory Council, support a male-only harvest. According to Rick Robins of Chesapeake Bay Packing, the voice of the watermen, “The male-only harvest strategy was designed to maximize egg availability for migratory shorebirds while allowing Delaware fishermen to harvest less than 1 percent of the estimated population of male horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay.”

Glenn Gauvry is founder of Ecological Research and Development Group, whose sole purpose is to conserve horseshoe crabs. He also supports the male-only harvest. “There was a slight depression of the population in the late ’90s, but things are looking good for these guys,” Gauvry says. “There was never any fear that the horseshoe crab would go extinct.”

Mike Millard agrees. Director of the Northeast Fishery Center for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he is also chair of the Horseshoe Crab Technical Committee for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Committee, which makes recommendations to Hughes and DNREC. “The technical committee is on record of supporting a male-only harvest,” Millard says. “I don’t know how these things work, but I’m guessing Secretary Hughes wanted to add some extra oomph to his statement so that it wasn’t just about the birds.”

Because of the suit, DNREC staffers could not comment on the subject. But one thing that most everyone involved will agree on is that the mid-to late-1990s overharvesting of horseshoe crabs is at least partially to blame for the red knot’s decline. “It’s the level of relationship that’s in question,” says Gauvry.

Some worry that the birding community, by supporting the moratorium, hasn’t fully considered other ways of helping the red knot rebound, Gauvry says. “I hope for the birding community that the horseshoe crab harvest is the full reason the red knots are dying, because we should start seeing results soon. But if it’s not, it’ll be too late for the red knots and this argument, however useless, will go on for a long time.”

Robins is concerned about the birders’ efforts to help the red knot. “Their biggest concern is apparently the red knots, but their political objective is to close the fishery,” Robins says. “They’re not even studying alternative feeding programs on the bird side.”

Only a few years ago, New Jersey and Delaware each harvested 300,000 horseshoe crabs a year. That number was lowered to 150,000 in Delaware and none in New Jersey last year. This year, no harvest is allowed in either state. “You’d think we’d start seeing an increase in red knots, however minimal, but we haven’t” Gauvry says. “And that’s worrisome because there’s not much time.”

The population continues to decline. Birders cite reports that show a direct correlation with lower numbers of horseshoe crab eggs. Watermen claim other factors may contribute to the red knot decrease, such as changing environmental conditions in their winter and summer homes and hunting in South America.

Meanwhile, the University of Delaware has been trying to create an alternative bait for conch and eel fishermen for at least five years. It is close to testing the product.

“We’ve been progressing as expected,” says Kirstin Wakefield, a research associate at the University of Delaware College of Marine and Earth Studies. “We’re really trying to figure out what it is about the horseshoe crab that attracts the conch and eel.”

The DuPont Company jumped aboard in November to speed the program through its final stages. With no real business interest in the project, DuPont has volunteered more than a dozen people to work on the problem.

“We’re trying to identify what the attractives are in the horseshoe crab for the fish,” says project leader Henry Bryndza of DuPont. “We’re pulling out all the stops and hoping to have it ready for test this spring.”

One can only hope the scientists can determine what it is about horseshoe crab eggs that other fish and birds find so appealing. A University of Virginia study suggests that horseshoe crab is far and away a conch or eel’s favorite food. Everything else pales in comparison.

Yet Gauvry is concerned that the price of alternative bait will be too high for fishermen. His Ecological Research and Development Group has been working with watermen to find alternatives, such as bait bags, which allow fishermen to use half of a crab or a quarter of a crab instead of a full crab when baiting. “People think fishermen are living some kind of rich life, but they’re working guys,” Gauvry says. “If you take thousands of dollars out of their pockets, they’re going to feel it pretty hard.”

Another of Gauvry’s concerns is the overall horseshoe crab population, which runs up and down the Eastern Seaboard. “Watermen are going to be looking for bait outside of the Delaware Bay, and that could put pressure on these smaller, genetically diverse populations,” he says. “We don’t want those fished out. So we could end up putting too much pressure on North Carolina or somewhere else, creating the same problem in those areas that we are trying to dig ourselves out of here.”

One peculiarity of the horseshoe crab, whose existence predates the dinosaurs by 100 million years, is its value to medical science. Horseshoe crab blood contains a chemical, limulus amoebocyte lysate, which is the FDA’s primary tool for screening drugs and intravenous fluids for bacterial contaminants and toxins prior to their release on the market. Limulus amoebocyte lysate is also used to test for bacterial meningitis infections. So there are teams of scientists withdrawing blood from crabs each year as well. Small amounts of blood can usually be removed without harming the crab, but there is about a 10 percent mortality rate.

The conch fishery provides 270 to 370 jobs and generates $11 million to $15 million of annual revenues, according to Robins.

“Some people say that this number is so much lower than the amount tourism brings in that we shouldn’t even worry about the fishermen, but these men pay taxes in Delaware, their kids go to school here, they buy their goods here. That should count for something. The ecotourists come and go home again,” Gauvry says.

Some wonder how many horseshoe crabs Delaware Bay can sustain and, with that, how many migrating shorebirds. The birding community’s main goal is purely to increase the number of horseshoe crab eggs available for shorebirds. says Eric Stiles, vice president for conservation and stewardship at the New Jersey Audubon Society.

Stiles grew up on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Bay. “As a kid I remember being knee-deep in crabs and looking up and seeing tens of thousands of shorebirds flying up the coast,” he says. “It was beautiful. That’s what we want to get back to.”

“The world is a lot different than it was even 20 years ago,” says Gauvry. “Delaware Bay couldn’t sustain the number of crabs it would take to feed 250,000 shorebirds. Say goodbye to all the mussels and clams and other small creatures. These crabs can eat. They’ve lasted an eternity for a reason.”

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